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Dog Food: 10 Pro Tips for Choosing the Best Food

Dog Food: 10 Pro Tips for Choosing the Best Food

Ah dogs!  Our best friends.  The pure, unconditional love of a dog is legendary.  And dogs are just so much fun to adventure with and run with and well... just hang out with. We could write a long love letter to dogs, but our cat friends might get jealous.  What we will do instead is write a comprehensive guide to help you dog lovers understand the best ways to feed your pooch to keep her healthy and happy and keep some extra cash in your wallet too. 

We believe that just like you learn to feed yourself to get and stay healthy, learning how to choose dog food is easier than you think.  Don't worry... we've got you covered. Read on for 10 things you need to consider when feeding your dog.

golden retriever eating from bowl held by human

1. Know Their Nutritional Needs

The first place to start for choosing the right dog food is to understand what makes up a nutritious dog food that is also delicious and balanced.

Amino Acids & Fatty Acids

Dogs need 22 amino acids for their survival, a dozen of which they can manufacture themselves. The other ten amino acids dogs cannot synthesize on their own.  This means ALL of these 10 amino acids should ALWAYS be in your dog's food.  The ten amino acids are:

  • Valine 
  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine 
  • Arginine
  • Histidine 
  • Lysine 
  • Methionine 
  • Phenylalanine 
  • Melanin Tryptophan 
  • Threonine 

There are meat and plant sources for each of these amino acids, which can be found in the Exploratorium Science of Cooking Guide. Dogs are able to digest plant sources as well as meat sources. Meat based proteins, however, are highly efficient means of delivering these vital nutrients and converting them to protein because of the similar structure of muscles in humans and animals. 

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.

assorted proteins on a platter

Proteins

Dogs need protein in their diet.  Lots of it.  Proteins are the building blocks for tissues, organs, and cells, as well as enzyme, hormones and antibodies.  Dogs can consume protein from both animal sources AND plant sources.  There is even a new trend with insect protein... eww? The benefit of animals proteins is that they are considered "complete" proteins, whereas plant proteins, if not given in the right combination and quantities, are "incomplete" proteins.  

Proteins are vital for:  

  • Growing and maintaining muscle, hair, and nails
  • Transporting nutrients through the body
  • Ensuring the immune system functions properly
  • Producing hormones 
  •  

    The protein in your chosen food should be listed first and by name.  If it says "beef" or "chicken" or "salmon" or some other named meat, this is a good indicator of quality.  If it lists "meat by-products" or "poultry", chances are you are getting the less than desirable parts of an animal all mixed together in that bag of food. 

    The American College of Veterinary Nutrition in their article The Protein Paradigm discusses various sources of protein - meats, meals, and plants - including their protein content and digestibility. It's worth the read! 

    Our colleagues at Pet Food Industry published a useful chart showing common proteins used in dog foods today and their percentage of digestibility.  

    Chart of proteins and digestibility from the article DEBUNKING PET FOOD MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS from Pet Food Industry Magazine

    Chart courtesy of Pet Food Industry

    PRO TIP: If you see food allergy symptoms in your dog, try switching the main protein source in their food as a first step to understand the allergy.

    Fats

    Fats get a bad rap, but fats are an essential energy source for all those zoomies and ball chasing activities our doggos love. Fats used in dog food are highly digestible and are the first nutrients used to provide energy for those zoomies.

    Fats are created with fatty acids (similarly to how amino acids make up the building blocks of protein). Two types of essential fatty acids that dogs require in balanced proportion in their food are Omega-3 and Omega-6.  Dogs cannot make these fatty acids on their own. 

    According to Pet MD good sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6  fatty acids include:

    • Fish oils (herring, salmon, etc.)
    • Flaxseed oil
    • Canola oils
    • Sunflower oils
    • Corn oils
    • Soybean oils
    • Pork fat,
    • Chicken fat (or any poultry fat)

    Our friends at Balanced Canine have a terrific article outlining a variety of fats you should be including in your dog's diet: 

    • Avocado
    • Nut and Seed Butters
    • Plant Oils
    • Whole Eggs
    • Fatty Fish (Salmon is exceptional)
    • Seeds - including chia, flax, pumpkin, sunflower, hemp and sesame
    • Full Fat Yogurt

    Fats in diets are essential.  And, unlike humans, dogs are not at risk of heart disease due to diets high in saturated fats. However, limiting fats for overweight or generally less active dogs is a consideration when choosing their food.

    PRO TIP: Read the label to see what kinds of fats are included and at what levels.  Also look for mention of Omega-3 and Omega-6. 

    variety of vitamins and minerals on spoons

    Vitamins & Minerals

    Your dog's food should also contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals.  These include:

    VITAMINS:

    • Vitamins A, C, D, E and K
    • Vitamins B1, B6, B12
    • Folic acid
    • Riboflavin
    • Niacin
    • Pantothenic Acid
    • Folic Acid
    • Choline
    MINERALS:
    • Calcium
    • Phosphorous
    • Iron
    • Magnesium
    • Sodium
    • Potassium
    • Chlorine
    • Copper
    • Manganese
    • Selenium
    • Iodine
    • Zinc

    We love this chart created by The Bark outlining which foods contain these vitamins and minerals

    For an explanation of the role these vitamins and minerals play in your dog's health, head on over to Great Pet Care to read their comprehensive list.

    Ideally, your dog's food should contain the daily required amounts of vitamins and minerals.  Too much or too little of these vital nutrients can cause problems with your doggo's health. If you are concerned that your dog is not getting enough vitamins and minerals in their daily food, read these resources above to learn, learn, learn before simply buying a supplement in a groovy looking jar. Always consult with your vet before giving supplements to your dog.

    Carbohydrates

    Carbs also provide energy for our good buddies and play a role in intestinal health. In fact, fiber is one of those extra beneficial carbohydrates because it can help manage chronic diarrhea in dogs.  Less piles of smelly loose poop on the carpet is always a good thing...

    Carbs are also the first "go to" source for energy, followed by proteins.  The vital role that carbs play is to be there when our dogs are ready to run after a ball or down a trail, saving proteins for producing and maintaining body tissues.

    Some great fibers to consider when choosing dog food include:

    • Beet pulp - I know, right? Apparently it is really good for your dog!
    • Brans - think corn (bran), rice (bran) and wheat (bran)

    It's worth noting that high fiber foods should be limited for dogs with high energy requirements and puppies. 

    PRO TIP: Food labeling for dogs falls under the purview of the AAFCO, which publishes guidelines for balanced nutrition in animal food. However, it is still important that YOU understand the balance between amino acids, proteins, fats, vitamins & minerals and carbohydrates as well.  

    chocolate labrador puppy eating kibble off floor

    2. Schedule Feedings

    The question of "what food should I feed my dog" is only part of the story.  How much you feed your dog is equally important.  A good thing taken too far is well... bad.

    The food you buy will likely have feeding guidelines.  Remember, they are GUIDELINES, not gospel. So... if you feed according to the instructions and your doggo begins to look like a fatty, reduce the amount you feed them.  You will likely get some pushback from your furry pal, but they will adjust after loudly complaining for a while.

    Also, feed them on a schedule and make it the same schedule every day.  Most experts suggest feeding twice a day - morning and evening. However, this will depend on your lifestyle and the energy output of your dog. 

    overweight dog sitting on sidewalk next to bowl of food

     

    However, if they are really overweight, consider switching to a lower calorie or weight management formula so you give them less calories per serving, but they still get the required nutrients. Simply feeding them less of the fattier food could result in a malnourished dog.

    According to Veterinary Practice News, there are several key risks for overweight and obese dogs, including:

    • Increased risk of osteoarthritis and hypertension
    • Linked with several cancers
    • Increased risk of metabolic and endocrine disorders, especially type 2 diabetes, respiratory disorders and renal dysfunction
    • Lower quality of life
    • Reduced life expectancy
    • Causes inflammation in their joints and internal systems

    So, how do you know if your dog is fat? The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has a useful chart showing a 9-point Body Condition Score (BCS) for dogs!   

    dog body condition 1 to 3

    BCS 1 to 3: Too skinny - the ribs, spine and pelvis bones are visible, abdomen is severely tucked, and there is no visible fat. 

     

    dog ideal body condition

     BCS 5: Just right - a well proportioned dog with ribs slightly visible and a minimal abdominal pad.

     

    dog body condition 7 to 9
    BCS 7 to 9: CHONK! - Ribs not visible, no waist visible, and heavy fat around the back, face and limbs.

    3. Life Stage Is Important

    Many foods state that they are "complete and balanced for all life stages." This sounds super convenient, but may not be the best for your puppy or your senior dog. Just like humans, dogs have different nutritional requirements at different life stages, so choose food that is designed for that stage.  Here is what dogs need at each stage:

    PUPPIES need food that supports their growth and should include a single source protein like beef, lamb, turkey, chicken or tuna. It should also contain at least 25% protein. Be aware of portion guidelines - overfeeding puppies causes health problems later.

    Canine Journal has an excellent article and chart for feeding puppies of various sizes and breeds at several stages through their first birthday.  

    labrador puppies eating from a bowl on the grass

     

    ADULTS can be less active than those puppies or just as rambunctious! Generally speaking, adult dogs need less protein and fat. There are a lot of factors associated with feeding portions, including:

    • Activity level - clearly the more active your doggo, the more food they will need.  Lap doggies need less food.
    • Outdoor temperatures - keeping warm or keeping cool burn more calories and energy, leading to a potential need for more food.
    • Work load - working dogs burn loads more energy and need more foods with more proteins and carbs for all that energy output.
      SENIOR dogs (generally 7 years or older) still need proteins to help them keep that good muscle mass. Even old doggos get the zoomies. A change in metabolic rate frequently leads to bulkier dogs in old age, in spite of reduced calorie diets. Ask your vet for guidance for your specific breed.

        A tip about senior dogs. The ASPCA has a handy guideline for determining the transition from "adult" to "senior" dog. In general, the bigger the dog, the earlier they age.

        • Small breeds and dogs weighing less than 20 pounds—7 years of age
        • Medium breeds and dogs weighing 21 to 50 pounds—7 years of age
        • Large breeds and dogs weighing 51 to 90 pounds—6 years of age
        • Giant breeds and dogs weighing 91 pounds or more—5 years of age

        Look for ingredients that help maintain good gut health and body tissue integrity.  These include:

        • Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) - omega-6 fatty acid that helps keep their skin and coat looking fine
        • Fructooligoaccharides (FOS) - which helps promote the growth of beneficial bacteria to stave off gastrointestinal disease
        • Vitamin E & Beta Carotine - help get rid of bacteria that damage body tissues and cause signs of aging

        Sometimes your doggo will just not do well with the food you give them.  It could either be a food allergy or mold in the food bag or just a bad tummy day. If your doggo starts throwing up soon after eating or loses interest in their food or treats, it is time to get them new food and talk to your vet about any deeper concerns she may have. Clinical Nutrition Service (part of the Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University) has a useful resource for what to look for in a food dog allergy

        PRO TIP: As you transition from puppy to adult or from adult to senior, it's important to introduce new age appropriate foods slowly, over a week or so, so your dog doesn't start throwing up all over your carpet.

        plate of wet dog food surrounded by kibble

        4. Mix Wet & Dry Foods

        Canned foods contain more moisture (at least 75%) and are very tasty to doggos. Kibble is super convenient, acts like a toothbrush by scraping food off the teeth, is cost effective and most dogs will scarf it down within minutes. Feeding puppers well is a balance between price and nutrition. So, one thing you should consider is mixing wet and dry foods together. Find a good wet food your dogs like and mix in a couple of teaspoons with their regular kibble.  

        There are several considerations for mixing wet food with dry food: 

        1. Wet food has more water, which is essential for dogs, especially those with kidney disease or bladder stones
        2. Kibble is good for dental health - as they chew, the hard bits are loosening food stuck on their teeth
        3. Wet food is generally more enticing and flavorful than dry food and can entice your picky eater to finish everything in her bowl
        4.  Opened cans of wet food must be refrigerated to last for a few days
        5. Start with smaller amounts of wet food and adjust as you see how much your dog eats in one sitting - you don't want the wet food sitting out all day
        6. If wet food makes you nervous, choose a wet topper like a spray or a bone broth to their kibble to give them extra flavor, moisture and nutrients
        7. Pour a little water over their dry kibble to moisten it and introduce more water into their feeding time
        white smiling dog sitting at table

         

        One of the concerns about feeding dogs only wet food is the negative impact on their teeth.  Feeding both wet and dry ensures they still get the hard crunch of kibble to help clean their teeth.

        We are fond of this article at The Spruce Pets discussing the pros and cons of mixing wet and dry food for puppers.

        PRO TIP: The nutritional analysis of a dry food is different than the nutritional analysis of a wet food.  Why?  The water in the wet food skews the analysis. Read the labels on each to get a solid understanding of the nutritional value of each.

        5. Learn About Grains

        Grains are a controversial topic. Touted as a way to keep fatty carbs out of pet foods, scientists and vets are now becoming more vocal about the potential harm created by eliminating grains from cat and dog foods. Grains are an excellent source of carbohydrates, the building blocks of energy for your dog. And whole grains are an important source of fiber in your dog's food.

        A grain free food does not mean a carbohydrate free food.  If your dog is not very active or is older, you should find a lower carb food.  The guaranteed analysis label on the food will show you how many carbohydrates your dog will get per serving.  This will be a better indicator than just choosing grain free food.

        Some people cite food allergies in dogs. While dogs can have allergies to food, they are uncommon.  Allergies to grains are rare. Generally food allergies are more closely related to the protein source, like chicken, beef or dairy. 

        variety of grains in teardrop bowls

        Whole grains actually contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fiber to a dog's diet. Some grains commonly included in dog food include: 

        • Barley
        • Corn
        • Rice
        • Oats
        • Wheat

        When trying to decide between a food with grains or without grains, it is important to look at the types of grains in the food and balance that with the carbohydrates in your grain free choices. If you are looking at grain free food, be sure you look at what the grain has been replaced with - is it peas or potatoes? Or is it a less nutritious filler? Quality ingredients and balanced composition is more so than simply eliminating grains.

        6. Know What to Avoid

        We have all sat down to eat only to find ourselves staring into the most imploring set of eyes hoping for a little tidbit to fall into their waiting mouth. This, of course, begs the question of what dogs can't eat when it comes to people food.

        Below is a list of several foods bad for dogs. Please NEVER give these to your canine friends:

        • Chocolate - it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart issues, muscle tremors and seizures
        • Dairy Products - cheeses and milk products can cause diarrhea, leading to dehydration
        • Almonds- an obstruction hazard that can cause water retention leading to heart disease, as well as flareups of pancreatitis, which causes vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite & lethargy
        • Onions and garlic - can be lethal for cats, causing their red blood cells to rupture or stop carrying oxygen efficiently
        • Raisins or grapes - can cause kidney failure
        • Raw eggs - can cause salmonella, skin problems and food poisoning and let's face it... nobody should eat raw eggs...
        • Raw fish - contains an enzyme that is toxic to dogs and can lead to seizure and death
        • Bread dough - the enzymes can create CO2 and ethyl alcohol, which gets absorbed into the blood stream and can cause seizures and respiratory failure
        • Grapes- very toxic to dogs, leading to vomiting, diarrhea, pain, lethargy and ultimately kidney failure

        Check out our handy infographic below of some of the foods you should avoid giving to doggos:

        human foods dogs should never eat infographic

        7. Research your Brand

        Where does your brand source their proteins? Where do they manufacture their food? How do they guarantee the quality of the ingredients?

        Pet parents today ask a lot more questions about the ingredients in their dog's food than previous generations did. Any brand that you feed your dog should be up front and transparent about how they source their ingredients and manufacture their food. You should be able to see these things on a product page, the company website, and reviews of the food.  You might even consider calling the company and asking them directly. 

        Sure, it can be overwhelming to do this kind of research... but have you ever tried to figure out why your dog is throwing up all over the floor? And when you take them to the vet, you spend a lot of time and money to to figure out what is wrong with them.  You might be surprised to learn that their food is the culprit. 

        PRO TIP: Do some research on the food you want to feed your doggos. If you can't find information about the food, switch to a brand that is more transparent. 

        corgi puppies eating from metal bowl

        8. Feed Well on Any Budget 

        You have so many options for food for dogs: dry kibble, canned wet, freeze dried, and raw. As we previously noted, dry food is convenient and shelf stable.  Wet food is more expensive and has to be refrigerated after opened. Freeze dried and raw are the most expensive types of food and come with some controversies. So... how can you feed well on a budget?  

        As we shared earlier, mixing dry with wet is a good way to increase quality of food, taste for finicky eaters and moisture to a dog's diet. What other ways can you balance nutrition and cost?

        1. Spray pet safe krill oil on top of kibble to add omega-3s to their diet
        2. Freeze pet safe bone broth in ice cube trays.  Defrost before feeding time and pour over kibble to add flavor, moisture, and nutrients
        3. Integrate raw foods part-time.  Turns out that many raw food brands are comparably priced to canned wet foods.
        4. Add raw meats you buy from the grocery store to their diet - these include chicken gizzards, hearts and livers, venison chunks, and beef chunks.
        5. Liven up their kibble by adding some raw or lightly cooked veggies like carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, blueberries, green beans or lettuce. 

        You can also make your own dog foods to supplement their kibble diet. We found some pretty cool recipes for dog foods at Whole Dog Journal, The Dog Bakery, and Greatist.

        PRO TIP: Read this great resource from Canine Care 2.0 that talks about mixing raw foods with kibble and how it impacts a dog's digestive system.  

        9. Find Expert Guidance

        Basic nutritional requirements and labeling requirements for dogs have been established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The AAFCO also governs what food companies can legitimately claim and what they cannot claim. The other agency regulating foods and their labeling is the Food & Drug Administration.  You can read the labeling guidelines published by AAFCO by clicking HERE or by the FDA labeling guidelines by clicking HERE

        An example of label accuracy they govern is how food is described and how much of the food ingredient must be included.  

        • Foods that claim to be "dinner" or "platter" or "entree" must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient
        • Foods that state things like "with" a specific ingredient only need to contain 3% of that ingredient
        • Foods that state they are "flavored" only need a trace amount of that ingredient

        PRO TIP: Seek the most neutral and objective expert guidance you can find about foods you give your feline friends. Rely on scientific and academic research instead of the writings of the pet food companies. 

        10. Read the label

        Did you know that ingredients on a dog food label are listed by weight? Your animal proteins, which contain a lot of water, are likely to be listed first because all that moisture makes them heavier. When the water is removed, as is the case with kibble, the more nutrient dense ingredients are further down on the label. 

        young man reading dog food label in store

         

        Here is the order of ingredients you should see on the dog food label:

        1. Protein - single source is ideal
        2. Organs - liver and lung... yummmmy
        3. Grains & vegetables - yep... grains...

        The experts at the Pet Food Institute put together an excellent resource outlining the meaning of various aspects of a pet food label. Below are some phrases and what they really mean.

        • Complete and Balanced - this means that the food has the proper amount of more than 40 nutrients essential to pet health as identified by AAFCO.
        • Life Stage - this means that proteins, fats, carbs, and nutrients have been adjusted to meet the needs of either puppies, adults or senior dogs.
        • Guaranteed Analysis - product information provided to regulators to ensure compliance with nutrient requirements and voluntary label claims. The GA covers the levels of protein, fat, fiber and moisture.
        • Ingredients - although this seems obvious, it is also meant to identify nutritional content, digestibility, tastiness (to your dog, of course) and other things like special vitamins and minerals using their fancy scientific names.

        Our colleagues at DVM360 and at Petco have assembled great guides for understanding your dog food's label. They are worth the read.

        Freebie: Additional Resources